St. Marx and the Dragon

1. The Name of the Beast

Without warning or fanfare, in the midst of his analysis of commodities and exchange in the second chapter of Capital, Marx inserts a block quote (in Latin) from the Apocalypse of John.

Illi unum consilium habent et virtutem et potestatem suam bestiae tradunt…Et ne quis possit emere aut vendere, nisi qui habet characterem aut nomen bestiae, aut numerum nominis eius

These have one mind, and shall give their power and strength unto the beast…And that no man might buy or sell, save that he had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name1

In other instances, when Marx makes use of literary references they tend to be short, to the point, and surrounded by explanation. The Much Ado About Nothing reference at the end of the first chapter, and the Faust reference that closely precedes the paragraph in question function as witty illustrations of his opponents’ poor habits of thought. For the Apocalypse citation, Marx stitches together two different passages and gives no explicit explanation for its use. The tone is not humorous and the relationship is not clear. Why would a self-proclaimed atheist-materialist desire to plunge his account of the formation of the money as a universal equivalent for exchange within the cosmic drama of the Evangelist?

There are at least three possibilities. One would be to cast Marx as a cynical rhetorician. He is appealing to a mythological framework to further the dramatic impact of his own historical-economic analysis. Perhaps he is afraid that the sociological nuts and bolts required his system does not provide sufficient kindling for revolution. A story of the final battle between the Messiah and the Ancient Dragon, however, is both recognizable per se and its attendant signs are easily transposed to other significations.

Another possibility could be that it has no deeper significance. Marx was both well-educated and widely read. Fowkes, a translator of Capital, notes “it is generally agreed that Marx was a master of literary German. A translation which overlooks this will not do justice to his vivid use of the language and the startling and strong images which abound in Capital2”. Sometimes a display of literary erudition is its own reward.

Thirdly, it could be that Marx used the Book of Revelation because he glimpsed a way to read the imagery of Biblical apocalyptic in an economic, political, and historical manner. I find this to be the most interesting possibility.

There is at least some indication that Marx was comfortable analyzing the operations (and apologists) of political economy in theological and religious terms. His remark about commodities as "abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties" may stand as a simple pejorative if taken singly. But, in conjunction with a few other passages, it seems to indicate an implicit aspect of his analysis.

He chastises the political economists who presumptively enshrine certain forms of labor and value as self-evident truths of human action which are imposed by necessity. To his mind, this is to treat previous forms of economic and social organization "in much the same way as the Fathers of the Church treated pre-Christian religion3.” The footnote to this passage takes us to The Poverty of Philosophy where Marx makes a similar comparison about the naïve distinction between "natural" and "artificial" institutions. “In this they resemble the theologians, who likewise establish two kinds of religion. Every religion which is not theirs is an invention of men, while their own is an emanation of God…Thus there has been history, but there is no longer any4.”

For Christians, this has a double significance. Negatively, it means that Marx considers theologians to be as naïve as political economists in elaborating doctrine. Positively, it means that Marx believes that political economy forces a caesura on the development of history by using a theological apparatus. And in locating the essence of political economy in the use of a particular commodity that can evaluate all other commodities, he identifies the (anti)messianic center of this aberrant theology: money.

The moment in Capital when Marx names money as the universal equivalent of exchange is also where he decides to juxtapose the passages penned by St. John. I think he intended us to take the similarities quite seriously. The terrifying unity of purpose with which the kings of the earth hand over their power to the beast matches the social action necessary to establish the monetary system. The mark of the beast dominates and drives all market-relations and bears a curious numerical quality which remains at the same time "a human number." It is important to remember that the Beast from the Earth establishes images of the Beast from the Sea and rules by invoking his authority. For St. John, this bestial image would not be a true icon leading from the material to the divine, but a base idol, or fetish, the very word Marx uses to characterize this use of commodities.

Further evidence that Marx took his exegetical interlude seriously comes a little later. His comments on the material used for commodity-money continue to have religious overtones. “This physical object, gold or silver in its crude state, becomes, immediately on its emergence from the bowels of the earth, the direct incarnation of all human labor. Hence the magic of money…The riddle of the money fetish is therefore the riddle of the commodity fetish, now become visible and dazzling to our eyes5.” Marx stresses the chthonic origin of money, as well as mentioning its strange desire to incarnate itself. Likewise, the Beast of the Earth emerges from the deep places and enacts his own demonic parody of the Incarnation. In his own historical-economic mode, Marx echoes the purpose of St. John, which is to lay bare the mystery of iniquity.

2. "And all is seared with trade"

For the Christian, then, what is the usefulness of this reading? The genre of apocalyptic, as others have stated, is not easily translated into the realms of history, politics, and economics. Notable exceptions like Joachim of Fiore remained largely in the background until the advent of liberation theology, and the resurgence of political theology6. At least one jumping off point is Marx’s account of commodity-fetishism. Aided by this conceptual framework, we can more easily identify how commercial empire of the Whore of Babylon sins against love of neighbor and love of God. Consider the song of the merchants after the devastation of Babylon:

And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more, cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, oil, fine flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, and slaves, that is, human souls7.

Two things are worth noticing here. First, slaves are deliberately placed at the end of what is essentially a cargo manifest. Not only are human being categorized among lifeless commodities, they are at the end of the line. But St. John interrupts this lament over lost profits with a simple damning gloss: slaves are human souls. The image of God in man is in direct conflict with the logic of the profit-motive. The Evangelist tells us that worshipping the bestial fetish determines one’s ability to operate in the market-place. All the merchants have to do is deny the image of God in man and worship instead the image of the Beast, the image that Marx identifies as money. You cannot love your neighbor as yourself and treat human beings as subject to the laws of the market-place: like commodities.

Second, almost all of the items in the inventory are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture as either being material for building a dwelling of God (precious metals, stones, wood, fabrics), or for liturgical celebration in a temple (incense, sacrificial animals, bread and wine). In only pursuing exchange of materials for wealth, Babylon and her merchants denied any higher purpose for matter or the created order. They are an ignoble counterfeit of King David who demanded to pay the full price for the site of worship and the gifts because he would not give to the Lord that which cost him nothing. For them, nothing can be given to the worship of God because it has no value apart from cost. The metaphors of whoring and fornication drive home their exclusive mentality of pleasure and profit. Creation must wait for the sons of God to be released from its status as an exchange-fetish and revealed as a luminous sign of the divine and the material condition of the Heavenly Jerusalem.

3. Marxist Gold

Marx suffered more from what he was unable to say (because of his materialism and rejection of Christianity) than what he positively outlined in his critique of political economy. The eschatological destiny of mankind and Creation remained hidden (or at least obscure and distorted) for him. Instructed by divine revelation, we seek after the holy visions of prophets, apostles, and evangelists. We desire to understand all political, historical, and economic within the mystical and apocalyptic grammar that began in the Old Testament within the images of Daniel, Isaiah and Ezekiel. The Apocalypse of John gathers together all previous prophecies and apocalyptic in the final institution of the Heavenly Jerusalem and the Lamb of God. The liturgy, social teaching, and dogmas of the visible Church constitute a single narrative whole of restoring and transfiguring heaven and earth in all its aspects. The Church already proclaims the need for repentance and conversion to all nations in her teachings and in her liturgy. For the kingdom of heaven is among us. It would be inexcusable to separate out those parts of Holy Mother Church that speak authoritatively on political and economic matters as utopian. St. John has lifted the veil and confirmed the teachings of St. Paul that our warfare is not against flesh and blood but principalities and power, and the systems of this world.

Spiritual warfare in this cosmic drama is most decidedly not private warfare. The witness of the Church must be allowed to speak in its fullness or it risks fragmentation and incoherence. As commentators like Eugene McCarraher and David Bentley Hart have recently pointed out, Mammon is ascendant in the form of global capitalism and it desires the worship due to God alone. Marx’s critique of political economy is of great help in exposing this particularly subtle and elusive fetish. Still, like all philosophies, Marxism must be disciplined and subjected to the holy mysteries and authority of the Church. We make a war of intellectual conquest on all things in order to bring them to subjection under the rule of Christ. Augustine and many other Fathers tell us that the true purpose of the gold the Israelites took from the Egyptians was to adorn the tabernacle of the living God. The purpose of our plundering should be no different.

  1. Revelation 13:17; 17:13

  2. Translator’s Preface to the Penguin Classics edition of Capital: Volume I

  3. P.175 Capital Vol. 1.2

  4. P.105 London, 1966

  5. P.187

  6. In particular, I would like to mention Oliver O’Donovan, both because he should be read by all and this essay is deeply indebted to his “The Political Thought of the Book of Revelation” which goes into far greater detail on these themes.

  7. Revelation 18:11-13